It starts at the source. One important thing to know when engineering is how to make instruments sound good before you even put a mic on them. I’ve had to intonate many guitars and basses on the spot, in order to keep a recording from sounding like ass. Few things are as unlistenable as a badly intonated guitar. On a similar note, learn how to tune drums. The biggest secret to getting a good drum sound is having a well-tuned kit. When a drum is tuned properly, it will sing. There are webpages dedicated to this that you should be able to find with Google. Also, maybe a drum shop in your town might be able to teach you.
It’s about the girth. Sometimes, if you are trying to get more body or “crack” out of a snare, throwing an SM57 or an ATM25 in the side pointed right at the hole on the snare can do wonders. A number of mics can actually fit this bill. If you add that into your other snare mics, you’ll get a lot more “pow”, usually.
Speaking of thickness . . . When recording distorted guitars, I find that I don’t always need to get that 250Hz and lower rumble in the recording that you might be hearing when you are standing in the room with the amp. I find that if I record the guitars really full range, it fights a lot of other instruments, most importantly the lead vocal. If you get the upper mid range recorded well, and then maybe some extra texture on top so that the distortion sounds nice and crunchy, having a good bass sound underneath can give the illusion that the guitar is really more full range than it is. At the same time, you will get much better separation between the drums, bass, guitars, and vocals.
A quick fix for sibilance. I notice online a lot of people asking what to do about sibilance. A handy trick that I have for sibilance is simply to tilt the mic off axis. A mere 15 to 30 degrees can do wonders without making things sound too dark. Also, if you are using a compressor with a slow attack time, like an LA2A, or a slow setting on anything with a variable attack speed, you will actually accentuate sibilance and any other natural transients that the compressor will not be able to catch in time.
Check your mix in mono! If you have anything recorded in stereo, you should always be checking that in mono before you hit record, first off. It’s a lot easier to change polarity or move a mic to an in-phase position than to try to fix mono phase cancellation after the fact. And especially when you are doing a mix, always listen back in mono before you print. On my first major label record, I made a huge mistake by accidentally having on one side a stereo guitar solo out of phase. I noticed the problem when I was in a restaurant and the song came on their radio, and I couldn’t hear the solo because all the speakers were mono. Whoops! (BTW, I have noticed that iTunes will cancel things when mono’d that don’t cancel when played back via other means. So don’t freak out if you are reading this and you start checking your olds mixes in iTunes in mono and you suddenly can’t hear the piano.)
Attenuation! One of my biggest pet peeves is getting tracks that another engineer recorded only to hear mic pre distortion. This is simply a case of the signal from the mic being too hot and the pre not having enough headroom to handle it. Ever notice that somebody starts belting into a mic and it starts to sound fuzzy? This can be solved by flipping a simple pad switch. But because not all pres have built in pads, I own a couple dozen of these variable attenuators that Shure makes. They are little cannon connectors that you run inline with the XLR cable, and you can select –15, –20, or –25dB pads. On an anecdotal note, I once had a visiting engineer in here that was afraid to use pads saying that they will screw up the sound. Well, needless to say, that guy didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about (because it doesn’t change anything about the signal other than the overall level), and the only thing that screwed up his sound was the mic pres he was using distorting, because he didn’t understand gain structure. Besides, most of the more colorful mic pres I think sound better when you add more gain.
Digital headroom. Speaking of distortion, for those of you who mix “in the box”, one of the good things about keeping everything digital is the lack of a noise floor, compared to analog. However, there is no distortion as unpleasant to listen to as digital distortion, and the fact of the matter is that the headroom of your DAW’s bus is not that great. So, next time you mix ITB, try keeping your faders about 15 to 20dB below where you usually put them. If you are monitoring post fader with your VU meters, you should want to only see the meters hitting about halfway. This will take enormous stress off your summing headroom, and will give you a much better sounding mix. And remember, you can always bump up the volume of your finally 2-track mix later. Just get something as clean sounding as possible before you go and ruin it with L2.
Be gentle! If you are using a mix bus compressor, please be gentle. All you need is a couple of dB reduction. Better yet, if you are unsure about how to properly compress the bus, leave it to the mastering engineer. If you over compress and bring him a couple of files that look like they’ve been flattened with a steamroller, the mastering guy won’t be able to do anything with that.
Which brings me to my final point: STOP WITH THE BRICKWALL LIMITING! Fer Christ’s sake, people. Louder CDs do not sound better! First off, a couple of things happen when you brickwall limit, starting with you change the sound of the mix. The first thing to disappear when you brickwall are certain transients, like the snare. The other thing, and I have noticed this a lot, is things tend to sound distorted when you make the CD too loud. I had a record I produced and mixed ruined on me by a mastering engineer who insisted on using brickwall limiting. I got a copy of the CD, and was mortified when I heard the distortion. I thought perhaps I had screwed the pooch during mixing and took out the half inch tapes to check. Sure enough, the mixes were fine and didn’t contain the distortion, and it wound up being a result of printing a CD too goddamn loud with brickwall limiting, even though the peaks were still at 0dB. CD players just are not built to accommodate that type of headroom. We have a lot of CDs coming out these days, by major artists even, that sound like crap, because some A&R idiot decided that the louder mastering job was the better one. Bands fall prey to this mentality too, and it’s really a mindset that needs to stop, because it’s ruining a lot of music. Dynamics are part of music. Brickwalling kills dynamics, and is the refuge of untalented mastering engineers. Stop the madness already, or I’ll have to hurt the next person who says to their mastering engineer, “I want this to be really loud."